Jordan’s Road to “Democracy” ‒ by Akram Kand and Jayne Peters

10 August 1990

in Articles, Khamsin Bulletin 9, Khamsin Bulletins

The Editorial Board of Khamsin wishes to point out that it does not necessarily share the views expressed in articles published in the Bulletin. In particular, we do not share the assessment made in the present article, which takes at face value the revolutionary rhetoric of groups calling themselves The Palestine Com­munist Party-Revolutionary and Fateh-Intifada (the Abu-Mussa group).

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On the 8th November 1989, Jordan held its first “free” general elec­tions in 22 years. The Western media watched with interest and indulged in speculation as Jordanian citizens prepared themselves to exercise their long-withheld right to participate in free elections. What prompted King Hussein to grant his subjects this right? The pre-November 1989 economic and political situation in Jordan must be explained as a background to the political climate surrounding the elections.

In mid-July 1988, King Hussein suspended the constitution and dissolved both Houses of Parliament. He relieved all Palestinian members of the Upper House of their duties, and on the 31st July he surprised the world by announcing that Jordan was breaking its legal and administrative ties with the West Bank. By that time the Intifada in the Occupied Territories was eight months old, and the Jordanian monarch had discovered that the many millions of dinars pumped into the Occupied Territories since 1967 were not buying him nearly as much support as intended. Hussein was, along with the Israelis, an object of Palestinian hatred. No more money would be available to tranquilize the discontented in the Occupied Territories.

Breaking ties with the West Bank was a calculated gamble, advised by Hus­sein’s Prime Minister, Zaid al-Rifa’i. The gamble did not pay off however: the PLO, instead of floundering under the sudden responsibility of the West Bank, welcomed the opportunity and thus “Big Brother” Hussein was no lon­ger indispensable. Jordan’s economic position, instead of improving as was forecast with the breaking of West Bank ties, steadily worsened. A run on the dinar and the flotation of that currency meant an overnight devaluation of 35 per cent. As Jordan could not pay the interest on its $9 billion debt, the IMF agreed to re-schedule payments, on condition that Jordan would impose tighter monetary control over her economy. This control included increase in excise duties, a rise in the price of petrol and, most importantly, the aboli­tion of staple food subsidies.

As soon as the Government announced these measures in April 1989, resi­dents of the southern town of Ma’an took to the streets, burning tyres, throwing stones, damaging Government properties and calling for the resig­nation of the “corrupt” Prime Minister. The “April Intifada”, as it is known in Jordan, started spreading through the southern towns and cities, areas pre­viously known for their conservative and unflagging support for the King. If unrest was rife among the bedouine and other Jordanians in the south, there was concern it might spread north to the refugee camps around the capital, ‘Amman. This fear was unfounded however. After unrest had been quelled, several sheikhs of a well-known tribe from Kerak delivered a petition to the King demanding reforms, the most important ones being the sacking of Zaid al-Rifa’i, holding free general elections and lifting the martial laws in force since the Six Day War of 1967. The pressure on Hussein was immense; after all, the April riots were caused by the very people whom he considered his hard-core loyalists.

Obliging them, Hussein ordered the Prime Minister to resign and appointed his own second cousin, Sharif Zaid bin-Shaker ‒ former Commander-in-chief of the Jordanian forces, a man respected by most tribes ‒ in his place. A few weeks later, Hussein announced that general elections would be held in Nove­mber of that year; martial law was to be lifted after and not before the elections.

With martial law still in force, no political parties could be formed, having been dissolved in 1957. Candidates could stand for election as individuals only, the sole group allowed to stand as a bloc was the Muslim Brother­hood, a party registered as a charity. The Muslim Brotherhood had served as a tool used by the regime to counter the “atheist” communists. This meant they were the only group with the advantage of organizational cohesiveness and public identity. The Muslim Brotherhood appealed to the people by way of religion. Phrases such as The Qur’an is our Constitution, and Islam is the Solution illustrate the lack of concrete policies to match the rhetoric.

The Palestinian question ‒ a dominant issue in Jordanian politics, since an estimated 50 to 75 per cent of the Jordanian population are of Palestinian origin ‒ was tackled by the Muslim Brotherhood with the declaration that Jihad (holy war) is the only way to liberate Palestine. Strategy and tactics were noticeably absent from this call for Muslims to unite.

The left, unable to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood as a cohesive party or parties, was doomed to failure. The results of the election were thus a fore­gone conclusion. It was acceptable for the Muslim Brotherhood to operate as a party (being a “charitable organization”); but the left was thwarted by martial law from forming a cohesive political base; thus an unfair advantage was al­ready at play. Added to this no-win situation, the left was in disarray.

The left

Left-wing organizations may be loosely grouped together accord­ing to political line and outside affiliation.

  • The Jordan Communist Party (JCP).
  • The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Demo­cratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
  • The Palestine Communist Party-Revolutionary (PCP-R) and Fateh Intifada.

None of these political groupings, except the PCP-R and Fateh Intifada, have produced feasible solutions for improving the Jordanian economy, or for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each grouping will be discussed separately.

The Jordan Communist Party is one of the oldest, if not the oldest com­munist party in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the JCP is nowhere near be­ing a vintage wine maturing with age. Its General Secretary, Dr Yacoub Zayadeen, a Jordanian from the southern town of Kerak, was a candidate in the November elections. Previously, in 1956, he stood for the Jerusalem seat and won. However, 1989 was not his year, although in his speeches he took great pains to make everyone aware how qualified and experienced he was for the job.

The JCP seems to be adopting the new political platform of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In a recent lecture Dr Zayadeen pro­moted the idea of perestroika in Jordan, without, it seems, understanding that perestroika was developed to deal with a seventy-year old, outdated self-styled communist-socialist system. He also failed to notice that Jordan does not have such a system or even one that needs reconstructing! Whilst recommending that perestroika be adopted by the JCP, Dr Zayadeen criticized the party for leaning too heavily on the CPSU for the development of communist ideology. So dependent is the JCP on Moscow, that the old joke ‒when it rains in Moscow, members of the JCP get their umbrellas out in ‘Amman ‒ is still applicable today.

With regard to the Palestinian question, previous supporters of the JCP were alienated by its acceptance of a two-state solution, which conflicted with their deep held belief that Israel is a racist, imperialist state. The JCP welcomed Hussein’s new democratic thinking, and even put up candidates for election (as individuals). Full-blooded Marxists-Leninists thus consi­dered the JCP as a reformist rather than revolutionary party, as it advo­cated “revolution” through Parliament.

Like the JCP, both the Popular and the Democratic Fronts for the Liber­ation of Palestine welcomed the step towards democracy and a future socialist state (again, assuming a revolution through parliament). Their ideal of a future socialist state is one in which there would be communal ownership of the means of production. They also feel that the masses are largely uninformed and unaware of parliamentary machinations. Parliament, they feel, has the responsibility of informing the population of its goings on.

With regard to Palestine, although not boycotting the nineteenth session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in 1988, the PFLP abstained in the vote on accepting UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (and hence Israel’s right to exist). On the other hand, the DFLP did boycott the nine­teenth session. Both the PFLP and DFLP are still committed to their “gradual programme”, which was adopted in 1974. This programme entails the setting up of a Palestinian state on any liberated part of Palestinian soil, as a prelude to its total liberation. Thus the PFLP and the DFLP have effectively moved towards the centre of left-wing politics.

Palestine Communist Party-Revolutionary and Fateh Intifada. Compared to Fateh Intifada, the PCP-R’s membership and influence are rather insignifi­cant, although both suffer from the handicap of being clandestine organiza­tions. Both groups call for the destruction of the Hashemite regime and its replacement by the “true” democracy of socialism; they must therefore ope­rate underground. These organizations and their supporters boycotted the November elections, for they were well aware that a socialist democracy will not be realized in Jordan, where an absolute monarchy holds the reigns of power, reinforced by the ruling class and tribal chiefs. The results of the elections were influenced and to a certain extent distorted by this boycott. It is hard to estimate what the results would have been had these “radical” groups taken part. However, one fact was crystal clear: the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood did not abstain, hence a sizeable fundamentalist presence was achieved in parliament.

Fateh Intifada (under the leadership of Abu Musa) supports the Intifada in the Occupied Territories and calls for a socialist state in Jordan as a prelimi­nary step towards achieving the liberation of the whole of Palestine. Once liberated, Palestine would be home to Jews and Arabs alike, within a socialist framework. This group is still committed to an idea first propagated and then abandoned by George Habash (leader of the PFLP) in 1969, who said that the road to Jerusalem goes through ‘Amman, Damascus and Cairo. Put in a less abstract way, socialist revolutions in the Arab world are necessary to liberate Palestine.

The elections

True to its word, the Government did not intervene directly to influence the election outcome. The campaigns, through the Government-controlled media, were crude and inconsistent, highlighting the crudeness of the electoral system as a whole and the lack of sophistication on the part of the candi­dates and the electorate. Particularly amusing were the tribal notables who were nominated by members of their tribe without their prior knowledge. Some of the eighty parliament seats were allocated to various religious and ethnic minorities such as the Christians and the Circassians. Thus, instead of promoting ideals and policies, candidates emphasized their particular religion or ethnicity.

The Muslim Brotherhood made full use of most mosques in the country, urging people to vote for their bloc, preaching that “Islam Is the Solution”. A war of words was waged between the Muslim Brotherhood and King Hus­sein, for whilst they pontificated on the destruction of Israel and threatened those who co-operate with the Jewish state (perhaps an oblique reference to Hussein), the king appealed for reasonableness and warned against the potential disintegration of the “national fabric”. Whilst the Muslim Brother­hood won more than twenty seats, none of the twelve women candidates were elected. (This was the first time that women stood for election.)

Corrupt officials, using influence and bribes, were elected to the lower House. The ex-mayor of ‘Amman, ‘Abd al-Ra’ouf al-Rawabdeh is a classic example of this: having bought votes all the way to parliament, he was then awarded two ministerial posts. When Zaid bin-Shaker resigned as Prime Minister, Hussein appointed Mudar Badran to the vacant post, although he was not elected and never ran for parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who demanded several important ministries, only gained authority over the Ministry for the Awqaf (religious endowments) and Islamic Matters.

Martial law has been suspended since the general elections and the Govern­ment has announced the amendments of clauses outlawing communism.

Despite these reforms, King Hussein still retains his absolute powers. He continues to dominate Jordanian politics through the appointment of the Prime Minister and the thirty members of the Upper House. Ultimately de­mocracy can be abolished with a stroke of the Royal Pen.

The future

The instability of the Middle East makes predicting its future vir­tually impossible. However, reasonable conjectures can be made.

King Hussein’s main motive for allowing “democratic” elections was the worse­ning economic situation. Income differentials between rich and poor have widened considerably since September 1988. Thus the riots of April 1989 came as no surprise, for empty stomachs are not known for listening to eco­nomic “reason”.

The Government dealt with a major aspect of its political problems by assuring the nation of its support for the Intifada and declaring that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Outwardly the Jordanian Government was quite content to lay the question of Palestine and the peace process at the feet of the PLO.

The economic problems are not as easily solved however. Even with solid cautious policies, Jordan is in for a rough ride. The country has few natural resources, and transfers of money into the country by Jordanians and Palestinians working in the Gulf states are on the decrease. For the Gulf states themselves have their own economic problems, and are discouraging the employment of migrant workers from the poorer Arab nations. For years, Jordan lived off generous Arab aid and the oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s; but this influx of money is steadily declining.

With the worsening economic situation, the population is being and will be pushed into one of two camps: Islamic fundamentalism or socialism. So far, Islamic fundamentalism is the more popular of the two. Why then do a major proportion of Jordanian citizens not feel that socialism is a viable strategy? The answer is long and complicated. However, the major points may be noted. First, such is the traditional stronghold of Islam in Jordan, that without even questioning the viability of this solution, people blindly accept the so-called Word of Islam. Second, the Left, being so fragmented (due in major part to the ban on the formation of political parties), failed to close ranks in order to gain more votes. Furthermore, except for Fateh Intifada and the PCP-R, the Left is not putting forward any comprehensive policies concerning Palestine. The notable absence of any solid policies is further amplified by the state of limbo in which the “peace process” finds Itself.

All is not lost however, for various radical elements are working to achieve revolution throughout Jordan’s entire political, economic and social structure. It is hoped that revolution in one country will have a snowball effect throughout the Middle East as a whole ‒ the desired end being socialism within the Palestinian state. With economic conditions worsening and active campaigning, the odds are definitely in their favour.

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